Archive for May, 2023

Evolution, black mollies and &@%!* mourning doves

Some cosmologists, astrobiologists, etc, have come to view machine intelligence as the next step in evolution. Some of their wackier adherents suggest that UFO aliens are machines (or even that the UFOs themselves may be intelligent machines – one way to get around surviving a several-century-long journey through space).

Whatever the case, it’s a novel and interesting outlook on evolution. Since Darwin, we’ve mostly come to see evolution as the genetic inheritance and modification of organic beings. But with the development of AIs scaring the pants off Aunt Sophie and everybody else, it’s time to broaden the definition of “evolution.” 

Oh, we talk about “social evolution,” but again that’s about shifting changes taking place within groups of organic machines like us. But now that we’re busy creating non-organic “beings,” they’ll likely develop a higher order of consciousness and intelligence (however you define those terms), so yeah, makes good sense to treat that as a continuing process – a continuation of evolution.

I especially like the implication that when machines become more intelligence than we are (which surely will be the case), there’s little or no reason to think they’ll act toward us with inbred malevolence. It’s at least as likely that we’ll become their puppy dogs or pussy cats and be considered “cute.”

On the other hand, human politicians would no longer be needed, so the few cretins that insisted on such destabilizing endeavors could be labelled “rabid” and put down – to everyone’s good, organic or otherwise.

*   *   *   *

I’ve heard the sound of one hand clapping!

When I worked at the Welcomat, one of our weekly paper’s top writers (as far as learning about the world of insurance and bureaucracy goes, the top writer) was John Guinther.

Probably in his mid-60s, tall, often solemn but always engaging, he would punctuate his pronouncements by flapping the long fingers of his right hand back against his palm.

Yes, it made a sound. I couldn’t tell you what that sound… sounded like, just that it was the sound of one hand clapping.

*   *   *   *

I despise arrogance.

Which, of course, is an arrogant posture to take.

*   *   *   *

Around 1977, soon after I’d moved into the commune in the Powelton area of West Philly, Betty Nemeth and Peter Tilley also moved in and beefed up the then-depleted assemblage, bringing their kids, Peter’s two teenage boys and Betty’s brood of four – three boys and one girl, ranging, if I remember rightly, from about 7 to 14 years old.

Betty’s adopted son Paul, age 9, was unlike any other child (or adult, for that matter) I’ve met. I had many a long talk with him on the front porch, because he had a wide-ranging and incisive mind, especially about machinery.

He told me that when he dreamed, it was often of gears and levers, observing their interaction. He was an engineer at heart, with an inherent instinct for how things mechanical interacted.

At the time, I had an AT6 record changer (a ubiquitous brand in the 1960s) that hadn’t worked in maybe a decade. The cartridge arm was frozen in position and wouldn’t track at all.

Don’t know if I asked Paul about it or he’d just said he could take a look at it. About an hour and a half later, he brought the unit back to me, working perfectly. It’s pretty obvious he’d never handled a machine quite like it before, but he understood its mechanical soul, if that makes sense (or even if it seems absurd).

Paul also had a mental condition that threw him into manic states where Betty would hold him tight to keep him from (supposedly) doing damage to himself or others.

Our other memorable interaction with Paul (which I didn’t learn about at the time) may have reflected a combination of his mechanical interest and that physical intensity.

Linda and I had set up a small pond, and off from that I ran an even smaller, shallow, winding waterway, lined with black plastic – no pump, just a serene wander of water fed by the height of the pond.

We put goldfish in the pond, where they stayed through the winter, apparently frozen into the ice, then come February they revived and moved at the rate of about an inch per day.

One summer we added a pair of black mollies (a common fish-tank inhabitant). The female produced a stunning mob of tiny-weeny black fishlets who could (and did) navigate the miniature stream its full 3-4 foot length to the end, then return.

Damn, I loved those mollies. I could watch them for hours (not true for me when dealing with the rest of the world). Then the pond’s heavy-duty plastic liner sprang leaks. The baby mollies mostly stranded and died. Soon after, a raccoon decimated the goldfish (including the alpha, whom Ben and his friends named Jaws), not eating them, but hurling them into the bushes, a rather bizarre approach to predation. 

We assumed the raccoon had damaged the pond liner with its claws. Not so, we learned years later: Leaning out a second-floor window, Paul would attempt to pick off the goldfish with his BB gun. I don’t think he ever hit a fish, but he riddled the liner.

I still mourn those mollies. But how mad can you get, in retrospect, at an amazingly talented 9-year-old with a BB gun?

*   *   *   *

Most years, a couple mourning doves live in the trees out front. I know – I’ve heard this form others – that some folks find the call of the mourning dove sublime. I find it the most annoying, idiotic, asinine sound any living creature could possibly make – as bad as being tied to a chair while some fool plays Tommy Dorsey and Vic Damone at full volume.

Their whining call assaults me when I’m working in the garden, and I restrain the immediate desire to shout, “Shut the fuck up! I know what your mama does in the hemlocks!”

*   *   *   *

Try this as a character name: Submersible Pump, whose acquaintances know him as either Sub or Mercy, depending on their relationship and general life outlook.

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Golden Onions

I intended to finish off another old, tailless short story for this weeks awakenment, but I just couldn’t scrounge up the ending. It’s probably in the washing machine, along with the tight little notebook that I forgot to take out of my trouser pocket and ended up in oddly pilled wads in the bottom of the dryer. So you’re stuck with yet another random dribble of noise.

Hope you’re sleeping well. We could all use a lot more sleep.

*   *   *   *

Almost every horrendous tragedy today is followed by someone involved (usually closely involved) wailing, “They didn’t deserve this.” True, in a literal way, but then, nobody, anywhere deserves to be mowed down in a spray of bullets or run over by a vehicular maniac.

And beyond that, what does any of us deserve? What is “deserving,” what is “meaning”? The definitions are different for each of us.

*   *   *   *

Don’t know how many of you work up recipes that tell you to “fry the onions until they turn golden.” This drives me nuts, because onions, cooked or uncooked, do not turn golden! Have recipe writers never seen gold in quiet recline? Go to Penn’s University Museum in west Philly and look at their South and Middle America collections. You could fry an onion until it begged for mercy, and it would not resemble an Incan bauble for an instant. At best, fried onions turn a quiet, unobtrusive yellow. OK, I guess if you read, “fry your onions until they turn an unobtrusive yellow,” it might leave you scratching you head. But you’d pay closer attention (and so would the onions).

Or how about, perhaps, “Steam the mangled residue of onion until it snoozes in saffron languidity.”

*   *   *   *

Throughout the ’60s and beyond, hippy side-sliders like me were greeted at local non-profit co-ops by Dr Bronner’s products.

Who the hell was Dr. Bronner? No idea, but I see that his ghost is still pushing all-natural products online. I’m not sure if his “castile soap” is the same thing as the ubiquitous bottle of clear, goopy liquid sold back then. That bottle was round, about 4-5 inches tall, cloudy plastic, with writing all over the sides. Around it’s exterior it told you, in deep blue lettering, that you cold use the product for any conceivable cleansing operation – including brushing your teeth. Yes, this same thick, blubby liquid that you could spread as a soap on your body or your dog or your baby could also serve as a toothpaste. Does this idea give you the same aching queases it gives me?

But looking more closely online, it seems that Dr. Bronner’s Cheezons have disappeared.

What were they? An alternative to standard-issue cheez doodles or cheez puffs, but confected from something far more earthy, like, well… earth?

Back then, our family had a delightful, engaging, superbly wonderful, universally loved St. Bernard, Pearl, who would eat anything that would fit into her mouth. When I peeled an apple with one of those hand peelers, I would lower the residue, inch by inch, into her waiting jaws. Once, as a joke, I held out a handful of pebbles – not to destabilize her, but to see what would happen. I had to quickly withdraw my hand because she would have cobbled them down.

The only item on earth Pearl would not allow into her mouth was Dr. Bronner’s Cheezons. The look on her doggy face said, clearly: “What?”

Lately I’ve a fantasized on giving the good doctor a call and receiving this reply:

“Dr. Bronner? I… I’m sorry, he isn’t in. He died of confusion.”

*   *   *   *

Why is pork always cheap?

Chicken fluctuates (or cluckulates) in price, and beef consistently reaches for the monetary stars, but somehow pork never increases in price; on sale it costs half as much per pound as a red pepper.

There’s been swine flu, leading to the slaughter of thousands if not millions of pigs in North Carolina, there are reports of a world-wide collapse in oink production, there are supply problems, but just this week, boneless pork tenderloin was on sale for $1.99 a pound.

This indicates either that there are a few holes in the elementary concept of supply and demand – or that pigs know something we don’t (and if so, likely something we would be better off not knowing). 

I mean, how can you convince people to shift from a carnivorous lifestyle to a vegetarian one when they can no longer pay their exorbitant rent, yet are asked to fork over twice as much for an evening meal?

Equally peculiar (but at the opposite extreme), bacon – processed pork – has nearly doubled in price over the last year. Think about it … if you slaughter a pig and toss its already degenerating carcass onto a truck, it’s cheaper than broccoli. But if you process its belly with vile chemicals that turn it almost eternal, it’s worth far more as food.

But what do I know? I’m a convinced carnivore. I’ll float with that.

*   *   *   *

The other night after dinner, Linda and I had a… discussion about my increasingly vile bouts of rage – increasing even more in frequency than in intensity. We were talking about what that might mean, what these raucous explosions might indicate, ranging from plain rotten temper to a mind slipping into dementia.

I see my anger as reflected throughout my immediate family. If I seldom saw it in my father, it was because in his teens he had come close to killing a friend during a rage (threw a hatchet at his head), which had helped teach him how to stifle his impulses. But both my older brothers would erupt into waves of astonishing obscenity, often accompanied by the heaving of sharp objects and breaking of more fragile ones. To one degree or another, it’s also present in all my daughters.

At base, these tantrums originate from our inability to accept any opposition that might, in the slightest degree, impede – physically, mentally or spiritually – the task we’ve involved in. With me, it’s gotten worse in recent years, to the point where misplacing a tool, mistyping a word, failing to properly pick up an object from the floor, or dropping a spoon leads, without the least transition, to a screaming fit.

But here’s the more important side: The object of my rage is almost always myself (“clumsy fucking cocksucking idiot asshole oaf!”) or the inanimate object that has failed me (“shitdicking crap-faced fuckwadded pissdump”). Years ago, when I suggested to Rod (the best of all possible brothers) that my anger was directed at myself, he quietly said, “O yes.”

But why should my anger now be on the increase? Because I just fucking hate being old. It’s a pointless offense ladled on me, a mistake in the organization of the universe, that at a point when I might have found peace and understanding, instead, I’ve become physically decrepit and mentally forgetful. When I look in the bathroom mirror (though I try not to), I shudder with disgust – this thing is what I’ve become?

Those of you at my age, but with a more gentle and controlled mind, have probably either gotten past this narrow outlook or, bless you, beaten it into submission. But with me it’s hardcore. I feel horrified, betrayed by my own body.

Also, you’ve heard about old age leading (or leaching) into “second childhood.” It seems only too true. I hated being a child and greeted the world most mornings with abject fear. School was terror, I had no friends or clear idea of what friendship might be.

Over later decades that flipped on its head (like Billy Barty). I’ve known so many years of joy, forged few but encompassing friendships, moved up here where the pressures have largely fallen away, and married a woman whom I could never have deserved.

But now I’m old. Many mornings I wake with that resurgent fear that something I can’t envision or understand is pressing on me like a mass of mental stones. I feel myself a failure, self-condemned by my unwillingness to be what I could have have been if I hadn’t been reluctant to succeed.

Oh, it’s not that bad. Other days I feel fine.

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You ever calculate the amount of crap you throw away when you buy a simple product like a bottle of aspirin? Depending on the brand and outlet, you may buy a standard bottle of aspirin shoved inside a larger cardboard box wrapped in a plastic sleeve. 

Once you’ve ripped off the plastic and torn open the box (neither one of which have a convenient point of entry), you now grasp a bottle whose top is incapacitated by a plastic seal that, if you have no a sharp object at hand, you must rip off with you teeth.

Wrestle the top off, and inside you find – another seal, paper over foil, that can’t be totally annihilated by any known implement, though you can get enough of it loose the shake out your two aspirin – except that they’re blocked by a wad of cotton that requires tweezers for its removal.  Remove the cotton, and mixed with the aspirin is a bumbly desiccant packet inserted to absorb excess moisture that had no earthly way to get into the bottle-fortress in the first place.

So: plastic, cardboard, outer cap seal, inner seal, cotton, desiccant – 6 pieces of trash before you’ve swallowed a pill. When, later, you toss the empty, there’s the bottle and its cap – 8 pieces in all. 

Don’t worry, this rant is not finished. I plan to expand later with a full-scale screed on waste.

Actually, you should worry, because I may drive you nuts with my conspiracy theories about packaging.

    *    *    *

Linda and I support a variety of social, educational and environmental groups. I arrange our giving according to a (somewhat anal) schedule: Each outfit receives a single annual donation during its specific month of the year. This, to spread the outlay. A few exceptions – Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and the Southern Poverty Law Center – each have permission to yank $25 a month directly from our bank account.

But that’s it, all of it. We don’t respond to phone calls, emails or snail mailings from any of these groups whining for us to up the ante.

The emails are no real problem – just a quick tap of the “delete” key. The phone calls (cleverly timed to our second bite of dinner) are more annoying but rapidly eliminated with a hearty “fuck off” (actually, said only once; we either hang up of leave the receiver open to waste as much of the bleater’s time as possible).

But those paper mailings force steam out my ears. “We give you money for important environmental work and you spend part of it to rag me with litter that I toss into my environmentally unsound woodstove?” When I think of it (and where the outfit’s website allows) I enter my contact preference: “Never, under any circumstance, send me a piece of postal mail about anything whatsoever.”

I’m probably wrong – you can never overestimate human gullibility – but I can’t imagine that this constant nattering for “more” brings in enough extra cash to cover the cost of broad-spectrum postage, and of the waste created.

    *    *    *

My daughter Morgan recently gave us an electric two-burner hot plate so we’ll have a way to cook when we miss our propane delivery again next winter. It’s a tidy outfit that just plugs into a wall outlet and is immediately ready to spew happy energy.

Of course, it comes with two pages of the usual dire cautions of the form, “Do not plug the cord into your ear!” (Similar cautions, of no value whatsoever, help keep the company’s legal department busy.)

In this case, there was also a round paper sticker glued to the metal surface next to the burners It read: “Caution, surface may become hot!” Now, of course, no one using a stove would ever consider such a possibility unaided by an exclamation point.

I always remove such annoyances because they’re ugly, asinine and attract dirt, grease and soy sauce. I did my best to peel the little fucker off, but it fragmented, so I wet the paper, waited ten minutes and scraped like mad. I did remove the paper, but the underlying glue would not budge. Which meant it was solvent-based. Which meant it was flammable. Which meant that, should the surface actually get hot enough to burn your fingers, the caution label would become a fire hazard.

I love wallowing in the native intelligence of corporate bumwads.

    *    *    *

We both, as leftist Pennsylvanians, really like Sen. John Fetterman (we first heard him speak at a dinner, were impressed, and have generally liked his outlook since), so we were pretty upset when he had his stroke. But he still won the election. Then he was treated for depression and out of an active role in the Senate for two  months, which both won him praise for honesty and openness, along with the usual damnation from the ever-angry morons on social media.

But what really knocked me sideways was the conspiracy theory that he had been replaced by a body double. Now, take a good look at any photo of the man: There is no human being alive that could serve as a body double for John Fetterman. 

This guy, with his massive brow ridge and menacing loom, looks like those early bestial drawings of a Neanderthal. And that’s OK, considering what’s been learned about Neanderthals in recent years. Today, we know that those looming, shambling, big-brained goons invented art and just about every other hominin advance that used to be attributed to the pretty-boy Cro-Magnons.

So maybe John Fetterman has a surfeit of Neanderthal genes, and maybe that’s why he’s the kind of politician this post-Cro-Magnon country needs. 

  *    *    *

Dr Geoffrey Hinton, on leaving his post as head of AI development at Google:

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the kind of intelligence we’re developing is very different from the intelligence we have. So it’s as if you had 10,000 people, and whenever one person learned something, everybody automatically knew it. And that’s how these chatbots can know so much more than any one person.” 

  *    *    *

Yesterday was my 84th birthday.That’s not in any way important, but for me it’s unsettling.

Roughly 3 months past his 84th, my oldest brother, Rod, died of heart failure. It had come on fairly quickly, played out even quicker. So, if I carry on for another few months, I will have outlived, by age, everyone in my nuclear family’s last 2 generations.

This was not supposed to happen. I was a ridiculously sickly kid (or at least treated as such), and I figured I’d crap out pretty early. Instead, my mother died at 61, my father at 76, brother Vic at 81, Rod at 84, while I’ll likely piddle on for another half decade or so (my paternal grandma kept at it until age 98).

It’s not fair, in the least. Rod was twice the human being I could ever hope to be, and, were I in charge of things, he would have lived well into the next century, timing his brewing coffee by his wrist watch and railing against the congenital stupidity of the human race. 

  *    *    *

Last query: Did Blaine T. Kneebone get elected?

It must have been at least 20 years ago, during election season, that Linda and I were driving, don’t recall why, along Rt. 32 that parallels the Delaware River in Bucks County, north of Philly. Every half-mile or less we’d pass a red, white and blue election yard-sign for Blaine T. Kneebone. I have no idea what office he might have been running for, just that every time we’d pass a sign, I’d mutter, “That’s not possible… there couldn’t be…” But apparently it could be – and was. 

I have no idea if Mr. Kneebone was elected, but I’ll tell you, if I lived in his district, I’d vote for him in a minute.

Wouldn’t you?

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